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Villines v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Vermont

July 20, 2017

Kenya Denise Villines, Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security,[1] Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER (Docs. 10, 11)

          John M. Conroy United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Kenya Villines brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Social Security Act, requesting review and remand of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Pending before the Court are Villines's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 10), and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the same (Doc. 11). For the reasons stated below, Villines's motion is DENIED, and the Commissioner's motion is GRANTED.


         Villines was 40 years old on her amended alleged disability onset date of February 1, 2013. She dropped out of school in the tenth grade when she was pregnant with her eldest child. (AR 375, 539.) In August 2012, she was taking GED classes twice a week and was enrolled in a drug relapse prevention class, a parenting class, and a computer class. (AR 527.) Villines worked as a security guard for about four years until around 2006. (AR 49, 186, 375, 539.) Before that, she worked as a cashier at various fast food restaurants and at a drug store. (AR 49, 186, 539.) She also worked “under the table doing remode[]ling” until May 2010 (AR 375) and for one-to-two weeks in December 2013, again “under the table, ” “helping [a] lady clean” rooms (AR 48). In September 2013, Villines was spending “varying amounts of time looking for a job, ” including a cleaning services job. (AR 564; see also AR 565 (“currently looking for work”).) She was unable to return to security work because her ex-boyfriend had obtained a restraining order against her, which she stated would be “on her record” for at least two years. (AR 564.)

         The record reveals that Villines was physically and emotionally abused, and sexually molested by her stepfather, as a child. (AR 566; see also AR 546.) The record further indicates that she was “brutally raped and assaulted” at a young age (AR 537 (raped at age 12); see also AR 546 (raped at age 21)), and physically abused by a boyfriend as an adult (AR 377). At the age of 16, she left her mother's home and was placed in a girl's group home. (AR 527.)

         Villines has a history of drug abuse, and was addicted to cocaine and marijuana for more than 12 years from her early 20s until her early 30s. (AR 538.) In August 2006, she was arrested for selling drugs to an undercover detective; after a week in jail, she was sent to a medical center for outpatient drug and alcohol treatment. (AR 526-27.) In June 2009, she completed two years of mandatory drug and alcohol treatment (AR 526); and in October 2011, she reported having been “sober and drug[-]free for over three years” (AR 376; see also AR 527 (“clean for [four] years and [eight] months”)). As of March 2013, she reported having been “clean and sober” for seven years. (AR 540.) The record indicates, however, that she “‘fell off the wagon' and resumed using cocaine” during the summer and fall of 2013 (AR 754), quitting again on November 12, 2013 (AR 757).

         Villines has never been married but lived with the father of her younger son for eight years. (AR 565.) She lived with another man for four years, until he passed away in 2007. (Id.; AR 527.) She has two sons but did not raise them because of her problems with substance abuse. (AR 377, 526, 538.) In 2001, she lost custody of one of her sons due to her drug and alcohol abuse. (AR 526.) In October 2011, one of her sons was 16 years old and living with her and her boyfriend, and the other was 22 years old and incarcerated for life. (AR 375, 377, 565.) In February 2012, her younger son was “placed outside the home due to [the Department of Health Services] being involved, ” coming home to visit Villines on the weekends. (AR 527.) In the summer of 2013, Villines and her boyfriend separated, and she and her son were forced to leave the apartment where the three had been living. (AR 563, 567.)

         Due at least in part to her troubled childhood, Villines suffers from several mental health impairments. She has anger issues and is uncomfortable around crowds or strangers. (AR 537, 564.) She has nightmares and poor sleep; she cries easily; she feels sad and hopeless “much of the time”; and her mood is “chronically depressed.” (AR 537; see also AR 526.) She has a long history of depression and anxiety, and has attended therapy sessions since September 2011. (AR 526, 529, 567 (struggles with “intermittent bouts of depression, typically situationally related, according to her accounts”).) Villines also suffers from several physical impairments, including rheumatoid arthritis; hypertension; obesity; and pain in her shoulders, back, hips, and knees.

         On a typical day in September 2013 (approximately eight months into the alleged disability period), Villines: attended appointments and ran errands, attended Narcotics Anonymous meetings at least once weekly, regularly attended therapy sessions, occasionally went to the library to search online for a job, worked on her resume, socialized with friends including sometimes going out to eat, watched movies, meditated, and cooked meals for herself and her friend. (AR 564-65.) At the September 2014 administrative hearing, Villines testified that she was able to do some chores, including cooking light meals, washing dishes, occasionally dusting furniture, and starting the laundry. (AR 51-52.) She stated that her son or other family members completed the remaining chores, which she was physically unable to do. (AR 53.) She further stated that she no longer went to the movies but she watched television and read newspapers and magazines. (AR 59-60.)

         In December 2012, Villines applied for SSI, alleging that, starting on June 1, 2010, she had been unable to work due to rheumatoid arthritis, depression, paranoia, posttraumatic stress disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and high blood pressure. (AR 169-78, 195.) Her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and she timely requested an administrative hearing. The hearing was conducted on September 15, 2014 by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Alan Sacks. (AR 40-72.) Villines appeared and testified, and was represented by an attorney. A vocational expert (VE) also testified at the hearing.

         Villines testified at the hearing that she can stand, walk, and sit for only 30 minutes at a time, respectively, before needing to switch positions. (AR 55.) She further testified that she has difficulty bending and crouching (id.), and has “[c]onstant pain” “all over, ” including in her hips, back, neck, and knees. (AR 56.) She also testified that she has trouble sleeping (AR 58), and does not usually travel alone because she feels “anxious and uneasy” around crowds (AR 60). Nonetheless, Villines stated that she gets along with people outside of crowds (id.) and that her mood is only “a little slightly depressive” (AR 61). Significantly, Villines testified that she would have been able to perform a sedentary job (with some particular limitations) without missing more than two days of work per month up until February 2013. (See AR 50 (Villines testifying that if she had been offered a fulltime housekeeping job “early in 2013, ” she “probably would have” taken it); see also AR 62-64.) Given this testimony, on September 19, 2014, Villines amended her alleged disability onset date to February 1, 2013. (AR 185.)

         On October 28, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Villines was not disabled under the Social Security Act at any time from her alleged disability onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 23-35.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Villines's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 5-11.) Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Villines filed the Complaint in this action on August 30, 2016. (Doc. 3.)

         ALJ Decision

         The Commissioner uses a five-step sequential process to evaluate disability claims. See Butts v. Barnhart, 388 F.3d 377, 380-81 (2d Cir. 2004). The first step requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant is presently engaging in “substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If the claimant is not so engaged, step two requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant has a “severe impairment.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the ALJ finds that the claimant has a severe impairment, the third step requires the ALJ to make a determination as to whether that impairment “meets or equals” an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (“the Listings”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). The claimant is presumptively disabled if his or her impairment meets or equals a listed impairment. Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 584 (2d Cir. 1984).

         If the claimant is not presumptively disabled, the ALJ is required to determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), which means the most the claimant can still do despite his or her mental and physical limitations based on all the relevant medical and other evidence in the record. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545(a)(1), 416.920(e), 416.945(a)(1). The fourth step requires the ALJ to consider whether the claimant's RFC precludes the performance of his or her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). Finally, at the fifth step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant can do “any other work.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). The claimant bears the burden of proving his or her case at steps one through four, Butts, 388 F.3d at 383; and at step five, there is a “limited burden shift to the Commissioner” to “show that there is work in the national economy that the claimant can do, ” Poupore v. Astrue, 566 F.3d 303, 306 (2d Cir. 2009) (clarifying that the burden shift to the Commissioner at step five is limited, and the Commissioner “need not provide additional evidence of the claimant's [RFC]”).

         Employing this sequential analysis, ALJ Sacks first determined that Villines had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability onset date of February 1, 2013. (AR 24.) At step two, the ALJ found that Villines had the following severe impairments: arthritis, degeneration of the cervical spine, obesity, and depression. (AR 25-26, 34.) Conversely, the ALJ found that Villines's heart impairment, hypertension, kidney injury, ankle injury, and joint pain were non-severe. (AR 25-26.) At step three, the ALJ found that none of Villines's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 26-30, 34.) Next, the ALJ determined that Villines had the RFC to perform “light work, ” as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b), 416.967(b), so long as it “involv[ed] only simple, routine tasks[;] low stress[;] and low contacts with others.” (AR 32, 34.) Given this RFC, the ALJ found that Villines was unable to perform her past relevant work as a cashier or a security guard. (AR 33.) Finally, based on testimony from the VE, the ALJ determined that Villines could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including the jobs of housekeeper and bakery worker. (AR 33-34, 35.) The ALJ concluded that Villines had not been disabled since the amended alleged disability onset date. (AR 35.)

         Standard ...

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